The conversation about the meaning of “Columbus Day” moved me to get better educated about the early history of the Americas. That history does have lessons for us today.
Before the first European traders began to frequent the shores of North and South America, the Indigenous peoples had built great civilizations with sophisticated technologies. There were great empires, great religions, great cities and many areas of settled agricultural cultivation.
The first contacts with Europeans brought new diseases to the Americas that killed a huge percentage of the Indigenous population. Repeated fatal pandemics burned across the Americas. An eyewitness to just one of several smallpox epidemics that swept across Inca territory in the mid 1500s said
“They died by scores and hundreds. Villages were depopulated. Corpses were scattered over the fields or piled up in the houses or huts . . . The fields were uncultivated; the herds were untended [and] the price of food rose to such an extent that many persons found it beyond their reach.”Hopkins (1983), Princes and Peasants: Smallpox in History, as quoted in Mann (1983) 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, 102.
No one knows the exact numbers of deaths, but estimates run far above half of the population in many areas. Many later arriving Europeans underestimated Indigenous populations and civilizations because what they encountered were the remnants of civilizations that had already been shattered by pandemics.
Consider the level of political upheaval we’ve had as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with a population loss of under one percent, much lower than in some earlier pandemics, supply chains are fraying and the conflicts we are having about health policy and the role of government are increasingly bitter and consequential. Imagine if half of the population had died. All confidence in established leadership would be lost. Self-promoting charlatans and conspiracy theorists would reign supreme. We would be vulnerable to famine, general economic collapse, authoritarianism, and perhaps even occupation by healthier nations.
That was precisely what many Indigenous peoples were experiencing as Europeans began to encroach with settlements and an insatiable thirst for natural resources. Not only were Indigenous peoples already greatly reduced in numbers, but the social fabric and governance structures of their societies had been weakened, reducing their ability to effectively organize themselves to resist European occupation.
But for the happenstance of Indigenous vulnerability to European disease, Indigenous peoples might have had the strength to confine Europeans to limited trading outposts along the coast. Indigenous peoples might have succeeded in playing European powers against each other over the long term and they might have maintained their demographic and territorial dominance for centuries longer, perhaps even until today.
I take two main lessons from this reading:
First, let us support the Massachusetts Indigenous legislative agenda, which is about recognizing the dispossession and genocide that befell Indigenous civilizations and European responsibility in that cascade of injustices. Not that we can undo the past, but we should know the history, understand our place in it, and honor the survivors. We should not deny the contamination, chicanery, greed, betrayal, and outright brutal savagery through which some Europeans acquired territory and displaced Indigenous people across two great continents.
Second, let us recognize our own vulnerability to nature, in particular to disease and to climate change. We are going to have to keep investing in the life sciences that may help us control the current and the next pandemic and in the physical sciences that may give us better energy options.
It will take more than good science to grapple with disease and climate change. Good science is a good start, but public health and economic sustainability also depend on political leaders who embrace collaboration rather than conflict. The conflicts we have experienced in the COVID-19 pandemic may foreshadow greater political challenges to come.
- Matthew Pearl, The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations and the Kidnap that Shaped America (2021)
- Mishy Lesser, Dawnland Teacher’s Guide (2021) and Bounty Teacher’s Guide (2022)
- Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (2018)
- Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011)
- Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (2005)
- Nathanial Philbrick, Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War (2007)
- Charles Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (2006)
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997, 2017)
- Milton Meltzer, Slavery: A World History (1993)
- Samuel Eliot Morrison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (1942)
- See also for the same ideas in different period: O’Connor, Reading Thucydides in a Time of a Pandemic (2022)